Do you really need to eat meals to be healthy?

I’ve been thinking more about the meal issue this week.  It’s a 21st Century dilemma.  In our global 24/7 world, traditional meals may not even be possible for many people.  Certainly, if you don’t cook and don’t have a helpful personal chef or stay-at-home parent to cook for you, meals start to look like a time-consuming chore.  Yet all the diet advice is stuck in 3-meal/day mode, as if it’s written in stone that the breakfast-lunch-dinner schedule is a necessity for health.

Are traditional meals necessary for health?  The short answer: No, eating traditional meals doesn’t automatically equate with health. And even if you do stick to traditional meals, you certainly don’t have to cook them all from scratch anymore.  So if you’ve been feeling vaguely guilty about your lack of cooking skills or meal scheduling, relax.

Meals probably took over human eating behavior as people started cooking, although you could make the case that, whenever game was killed, it was community meal time, because there was no viable methods to store all that meat.  It had to be eaten quickly before it spoiled.  As agriculture became an important source of daily food, and people lived in organized communities, meals would be the most efficient way to prepare food for everyone at once.  No more hunting, foraging and gathering.  Until recently, food preparation was pretty labor-intensive: grains had to be ground, ingredients were baked or boiled or roasted over open fires, all of which took time.  When the food was ready, everyone ate.  Then the process started all over again, preparing for the next meal.  Certain people, like stay-at-home mom, were the designated food gatekeepers: planning, shopping, cooking and serving at designated times.

No so today.  We can eat whatever we want whenever we want, as the headline said in USAToday recently.  Latch-key kids who grew up grazing their way through the pantry and refrigerator, carry that eating style into adulthood.  With lots of people working evening and swing shifts, traditional meal times become impossible.  But even if you don’t eat in a 3-meal/day pattern, there are some general guidelines you should follow.  The problem with random eating is the lack of structure.  There are no particular Start and Stop cues.  While some people eat when hungry and stop when they feel full, others start eating and then just keep on eating.  Food becomes just another multi-task, something you do on auto-pilot while watching TV or sitting in front of the computer at work or driving.  And that’s an invitation to overeat.  I see so many people with weight problems who have absolutely no idea how much they should be eating.  They’ve lost their ability to listen to hunger and satiety cues, thanks to constant eating and drinking.

I think people should eat about 4 times/day, and this can be 4 small “meals” or 2 modest meals and 2 snacks or some other variation.  Whatever your daily schedule, you should eat something within 2 hours of waking up, preferably within 1 hour.  It’s a really bad idea to go for hours after waking with no food.  Or worse, starting your day with junky high sugar food or a nothing but a sugary caffeinated drink.  Your first eating occasion of the day should include some protein, and healthy carbs like whole grains, vegetables or fruit.  It could be bran cereal and milk, vegetable cheese pizza with juice, or an egg-veggie-potato burrito.

Depending on what your day is like, you should spread meal/snacks out by 2-1/2-4 hours through the day.  If you at least think about spreading out your food intake like that, you realize that the habit of mindlessly snacking out of a chip bag, or sipping on a super sized soft drink don’t fit that pattern.  Let your system digest a meal before you start eating again.  Being a little hungry before your next meal is not so terrible.  Hunger gets your digestive system going, so you don’t feel sluggish and bloated all the time from constant eating.

So if “breakfast” is at 2 p.m. and consists of a tossed green salad with chicken, fine.  If dinner is at midnight and is a bowl of cereal, with milk and a banana, fine.  If you never cook and never eat at conventional times, you can still eat healthy.  Just don’t limit your choices to processed grab-n-go snack foods, and give your digestive system time to process the food you just ate before you start eating again.

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